Whistled speech encodes a spoken language into a language of musical pitch that can communicate across much greater distances than the voice can shout. Whistled languages have arisen in history in cultures with inhabiting landscapes so rugged as to make face-to-face communication economically and physically costly. They have been used by herders and agriculturalists and have even been used by militaries as secret codes, as when the Guanches of the Canary Islands rebelled against the Spanish in 1488. Whistled speech in Sochiápam Chinantec [cso] of Cuicatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico has quickly fallen out of use in the community. It once had a central role in the day-to-day governing of the town where it was used as a channel to carry information across a difficult landscape informing local government authorities and committees of the times and places for meetings and carrying news up and down the mountainsides. Long distance whistled language has now been replaced with walkie-talkies. Today there are only about 25 elder men capable of using the code fluently.

With support from the programs in Documenting Endangered Languages and Cultural Anthropology, this Rapid Response Research (RAPID) award will enable three researchers to carry out the documentation of a disappearing whistled language of Mexico and its cultural contexts of use. To respond to the serious endangerment and the absence of documentation an interdisciplinary team combining a cultural ecologist, an ethnographic linguist, and a videographer will record whistled speech in high-definition video and uncompressed audio, and work with Sochiápam elders to transcribe the recordings. The investigators will host an educational workshop for the community during their work in Sochiápam. The project materials will be useful for the speaker community in their efforts at cultural preservation, the intellectual community to understand how much of a language can remain perceptible when transformed into whistles, and to provide the raw video footage to develop a public television documentary, a valuable tool for educating the U.S. and Mexican publics about language endangerment.

Project Report

" responded to the urgency to document a quickly disappearing whistled variety of an indigenous language of rural Oaxaca, Mexico. Whistled speech transforms a spoken language into a language of musical pitches that can carry talk across much greater distances than the voice can shout. Whistled languages have been used by herders and agriculturalists for everyday communication and even by militaries as secret codes. Funded by the Documenting Endangered Languages Program and Cultural Anthropology Program, an interdisciplinary research team consisting of the linguist Dr. Mark Sicoli of Georgetown University, social scientist Dr. David Yetman of the University of Arizona and the videographer Dan Duncan from the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, worked with the last five men of the town of San Pedro Sochiapam who proficiently use whistled speech. In consultation with these community members, the team produced primary documentation of HD videos of natural whistled conversations, experiments testing the intelligibility of whistled speech, and interviews about the historical role of whistled speech in the community, the decline of the practice, and the endangerment of the Chinantec language. Documenting the linguistic structure and historical trajectory of whistled speech in this rural community has intellectual merit for understanding the relations between linguistic registers, cultural processes and social change. Increasing our knowledge of whistled speech is important for the psycholinguistics of perception to understand how speakers can infer underlying speech forms from a reduced set of prosodic features capable of being whistled over great distances and understood outside of face-to-face contexts. As a marker of cultural change, the disappearance of Sochiapam Chinantec whistled speech is not isolated. Physically produced distance registers are disappearing around the world as the cultural practices that supported their use have changed or been mediated through new technologies. Before technological innovations like watches for keeping schedules, electricity, PA systems, walkie-talkies and cellular telephones for long distance communication became commonplace in Mexico, speakers of several languages of the mountainous state of Oaxaca used whistled speech for long-distance communication. The researchers found that people fluent in Sochiapam Chinantec whistled speech could whistle just about anything they could say in the spoken language as the whistled language was based directly on the tones, stress, syllable structure, and laryngeal features of spoken Chinantec. In addition the whistled language had elements that were suited to its long-distance ecology and not present in the spoken language, including a turn-finality marker that lets the other participant know that it is now his turn to talk, much like "over" does in radio operator talk. In addition to building the largest archived collection of whistled natural conversations for Chinantec, Sicoli developed a map navigation task which asked one speaker to whistle directions to a second speaker to follow on a map. The successful use of whistles to direct another person through a map of city streets they never saw before demonstrated the productivity of whistled speech for completely novel activities and the great intelligibility a whistled channel of communication can afford its users. Sicoli also documented relationships between the spoken and whistled registers, transcribed the whistles into written Chinantec, and translated the whistled conversations, map navigation tasks, and supplemental documentation with the assistance of Marcelino Flores Mariscal, a local advocate for cultural preservation in Sochiapam. The transcriptions are translated into Spanish and English for broad use value. The documentary materials are being disseminated as a High Definition public television documentary "Whistles in the Mist: Whistled Speech in Oaxaca" and through the Sochiapam Chinantec Whistled Speech Archive, an online linguistic repository of transcribed audiovisual recordings prepared for the permanent preservation of these resources in The Max Planck Language Archive and providing a linguistic corpus for future research. The 24-minute television documentary airs in the series "In the Americas, with David Yetman" and is edited to show both sides of conversations conducted across fields and canyons, and the scientific process of Sicoli’s language documentation efforts. It clearly illustrates the powerful intelligibility of whistled speech and the culture and place in which this code developed. As part of the broader impacts of the project, the program is a valuable tool for education about language loss and cultural change is already being used in classrooms in the United States and Mexico. Sicoli has worked toward the scholarly dissemination of the project through the development and promotion of the archive. He has given public lectures on whistled speech at the University of Alaska, presentations of the documentary and archive at Georgetown University and at the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation at the University of Hawaii. He is currently developing a manuscript describing conversation structure in whistled speech.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Shobhana Chelliah
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Arizona
United States
Zip Code